Potato breeder leaves mark on industry
By John O’Connell
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Nearly 14 years after Joseph Pavek’s retirement from potato breeding, new and improved spud varieties still bear his fingerprints.
While reading about new releases from the Oregon State University potato breeding program, Pavek noticed many of them utilized his germplasm as parents.
During a career spanning more than three decades with the USDA’s Aberdeen Agricultural Research Service, Pavek, who turns 86 in October, also bred a potato variety that still ranks third in U.S. fall acreage. In 2012, his Ranger Russet represented 12.2 percent of Idaho’s total plantings and 9.4 percent of the national acreage, behind Russet Burbank and Russet Norkotah.
“I think he’s made a tremendous contribution. There are a bunch of growers and processors who have made money on Ranger Russets,” said Phil Nolte, a University of Idaho Extension potato disease pathologist.
Nolte is impressed that Pavek also published 18 papers in the American Journal of Potato Research, served as a past president of the Potato Association of America and won the National Potato Council’s researcher of the year award in 1989.
Pavek was raised on a farm in northwest Minnesota, where his family raised spuds using plows pulled by quarter horses and milked a dozen cows.
When he joined the staff at Aberdeen, where he also served on the UI faculty, Pavek recalls Idaho lagged behind other major potato states in variety development. He explained the Idaho Potato Commission was convinced it already had the world’s best potato in Russet Burbank and saw no need to improve upon it. His breeding program, however, worked to best Russet Burbank’s yield and size profile.
“What we were looking for was to have the characteristics of Russet Burbank but a higher yield of No. 1s,” Pavek said.
His Ranger Russet, a late-maturing variety released in 1991 that processes and bakes well, produced about 80 percent No. 1-sized spuds, about 30 percent higher than Russet Burbank.
Rupert, Idaho, grower Dan Moss likes the vigor and quality of Ranger Russet.
“Ranger Russet is one of my favorite varieties. It can take a little hotter or cooler weather and it doesn’t affect the potato like Russet Burbank,” Moss said. “It’s one of our big yielders.”
However, Pavek insists his major contribution to the spud industry is the bank of germplasm he developed throughout the years. His material has been shared with major breeding programs throughout the U.S., and even Europe.
“What I saw was we really needed to broaden the germplasm so we could grow more material,” Pavek said. “My predecessor would grow 10,000 single hills. I would grow 100,000 single hills, and each hill was different genetically. We really went at it at a large scale, and the Potato Commission really helped us out by seeing that we had the money we needed to grow large populations, and the university cooperated.”
Pavek explained Russet Burbank is difficult to use in breeding because it’s about 90 percent less fertile than other varieties, such as Norkotah. However, its genetics have been bred into every Russet variety, providing the characteristic brown skin and the quality attributes processors desire.
Pavek believes potatoes fill an important role in a balanced diet, providing essential amino acids, such as lysine, that are lacking in cereals.
Joseph J. Pavek
Occupation: Retired potato breeder with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Aberdeen, Idaho.
Education: Bacheler’s and master’s degrees in plant genetics from University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. in plant genetics from University of Minnesota
Family: Son Mark is a potato researcher at Washington State University. His wife is Sylvia and his daughters are Mary, Diane, Kathy, Susan, Julie and Jane.
Hometown: American Falls, Idaho.